By Rob Boston
Jerry Falwell Jr.’s attempts to forge Liberty University students into a dominant political machine and take over the city of Lynchburg (Va.) have been thwarted – for now.
In Lynchburg’s municipal elections yesterday, a slate of candidates closely aligned with Falwell fared poorly, and a Liberty University student who ran for a spot on the city council came in last.
Although some new faces are coming on to the council, the Lynchburg News & Advance reported that the results essentially maintain the status quo.
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“City voters collectively split the ticket on their ballots, picking one candidate from the Republican slate and two independent candidates endorsed by groups such as Lynchburg First and the Lynchburg Democratic Committee,” reported the newspaper.
Falwell had hoped to stack the council with candidates who would do his bidding. He hopes to expand Liberty University and is angry that the current council will not grant him an unfettered right to grow as he sees fit by lifting zoning requirements.
Three candidates aligned with Falwell – Hunsdon Cary, Ted Hannon and Don Good – ran for council, seeking at-large seats. Only Cary won. In addition, Lynchburg Mayor Joan Foster was reelected; Brent Robertson, a Liberty student who ran for the council, came in last place.
Falwell had hoped to use Liberty students to sway the outcome of the election. He has done it before. In November of 2009, Liberty students voted heavily in a race for state delegate, unseating incumbent Democrat Shannon Valentine. (Liberty used a university-owned student newspaper to attack Valentine and promote her opponent, Scott Garrett; AU reported the matter to the IRS.)
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Valentine had been leading the race until returns from the precinct where LU students vote came in, when she fell behind to Garrett, who ended up winning the race by about 200 votes. Falwell took the credit and vowed to use Liberty’s ballot-box clout to influence city elections as well.
But Falwell’s machinations sparked concern among many city residents. On April 30, Elliot Schewel, a former state senator who represented the area from 1976-1995, wrote a column for the News & Advance warning about Falwell’s manipulation of LU students to achieve his goals and pointing out that Falwell doesn’t even live in the city.
Among other things, Schewel scored Falwell for unethical behavior. He noted that Falwell had secretly videotaped a meeting with Mayor Foster and refused to admit that his actions had been out of line. Schewel warned that the Liberty chancellor seeks to be “chancellor of Lynchburg as well.”
Schewel was especially appalled that Falwell had claimed that both Valentine and Garrett were invited to speak on the Liberty campus. In fact, Valentine had several times requested to speak on campus and was denied.
Falwell responded with his own column, insisting that he had invited both Valentine and Garrett to speak on campus and asserting, “I am not endorsing any candidates in the upcoming City Council elections and neither I nor Liberty University have ever tried to tell students for whom they should vote.”
This spurred Valentine to respond. In a letter to the newspaper, she flatly accused Falwell of twisting the truth, observing, “I was never invited to speak at Liberty University last fall. In fact, not only was I not invited to speak, my requests to address the Liberty students were repeatedly denied.”
In the wake of the election, Falwell attempted to be nonchalant and pleased with the results. He just wants Liberty students to be involved, he claimed.
Pardon my skepticism. In fact, Falwell, just like his father, has political goals that reach from local government all the way to the White House. In his own back yard, he’d like nothing more than a rubber-stamp council that gives him whatever he wants.
The people of Lynchburg stopped him this time. But I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Falwell’s political machinations.